Yesterday the BBC published a list of the ‘most controversial’ adverts of 2010. On the list was the ad pictured (right) for the website Marital Affair which promotes and helps facilitate sexual encounters between married people. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received over 420 complaints about it. I was one of those who complained after I had seen the ad. I was driving with my family and my five year old son said outloud, ‘”Hello Girls”…Daddy what’s a ma-ree-tal affair?’ I looked up and saw the huge billboard which promised ‘instant excitement’ through cheating on your partner.
I contacted Merton Council but they redirected me to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) where I submitted a complaint via their website. A few days later the ASA wrote back to me, rejecting my complaint, and stating:
“The ASA bases its judgments on the content of the ad and… the prevailing standards in society…We can only act if the ad, in our judgement, offends against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards…it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or be seen as irresponsible.”
I did not want it to end there as I strongly disagreed with the ASA’s judgement. So I set up a facebook group entitled Stop Marital Affair Advertising Publicly in the UK. I invited my facebook friends to join and I expected that about 50 people might join and support my complaint.
Pretty quickly though I realised that it would grow bigger than I thought.
A wide range of people seemed instinctively sickened by the advert and by the end of the first day we had over 300 members of the group. By the end of 2nd day we had over 800 members.
However it was clear that the ASA would not budge so we switched the focus to the company behind the website – White Label Dating , run by major players Global Personals. The CEO was Ross Williams, a millionnaire on-line entrepreneur, who claimed that ‘his business was love’.
So by the third day, with the group now numbering well over 1500 we asked each member to email Mr Williams and explain why they thought he should not be promoting a website which contributes to family breakdown and ruining marriages. Emails poured into his inbox. It prompted Ross Williams to get in direct contact and requested that we stop the emails – and he asked for time to sort things out and claimed it was a complicated situation. We replied that we would stop the action as soon as soon as he agreed to withdraw the advert. We wanted to keep up the pressure.
The group continued to grow fast and by the 4th day we had well over 3000 members. That morning, both Sky News and the Daily Telegraph covered the campaign and about 100 people were joining every hour. So we asked the group to phone the offices of Global Personals and to politely explain to the person they spoke to the impact that marital affairs had had on their lives – how they had affected friends and family. We stressed to everyone the self-defeating danger of being rude or aggressive – we simply had to explain to them the effect of what they were promoting.
It took one day of this approach to achieve a break through. Late on day 4, with the group membership over 4000 strong, we received the following statement from Global Personals:
“We have reviewed our advertising strategy and have instructed our agency to remove billboard ads from our current campaign in light of recent developments.”
The campaign had been successful.
Once we had achieved what we set out to do we closed the group to new members and changed its name. The page is still there as We Stopped a Marriage Break Up Website Advertising Publicly in the UK and the various comments and debates can be seen. You can also read the way we had to respond to criticisms of the campaign. I was so grateful for the hard work of two friends Jon Yates and Jonathan Chilvers who helped lead the whole thing.
Months later there was an interesting postscript to the whole story. Due to a massive coincidence, a friend of a friend had dinner with a relative of Ross Williams and had heard them explain how the campaign had affected him and their family. It was clear that it was the reasonable way that people had protested which had given the campaign its power – the protests could not be written off as nutters because we did not act in that way. The campaign was assertive and persistent but not nasty or vitrolic. It shows that non-violent protest has a moral power that is forfeited when anger and aggression take control.
Most of my work has been with homeless people and vulnerable people and I see the wreckage caused by family breakdown at the sharp end (for more see Families Valued). As a society, we urgently need to awaken from our slumbers and see what is really going on around us. Family breakdown destroys lives and wrecks communities – it creates poverty and homelessness and contributes to the epidemic levels of low self-esteem and depression. ‘Products’ which undermine relationships and promote marriage breakdown need to be condemned and not be granted the right to advertise in public.
Of course it would be wrong to over hype a small victory – the website still exists and Ross Williams is still making money from it. But the removal of the advert did highlight something important – that money, consumerism and cyncism may be powerful but can be challenged. As well as being a fun few days it showed that a group of ordinary committed people can make a difference if they work together.